For Cambodian street children, skateboarding may provide a new way of life
An array of colorful quarter pipes, bank ramps and a fun box come to life as a clutch of Cambodian youngsters do balancing tricks, kick-flips and kick turns. The all-girl session at a skating facility near the Russian Market in Phenom Penh, Cambodia, is facilitated by 20-year-old Kov Chansangva, popularly known as Tin.
“I’ve been doing it every day for a year. I feel happy when I get on the skateboard. It releases stress. My life has become better. I feel more responsible and have more confidence to overcome life’s obstacles,” said Tin.
Skateboarding is new in this Asian country, and it is changing lives.
Cambodia, with its conflict-ridden past, has hundreds of thousands of children who work on the streets to fend for themselves or supplement the family income. There are an estimated 10,000 working children in Phnom Penh alone and half of them are girls.
Many youngsters ages 5 to 17 work in garbage dumps, brick factories and fish processing units. They are at risk of being drawn into gambling and drugs.
In this bleak scenario, skateboarding has come as a refreshing new way of life.
Not only is it bridging the gender gap — according to the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) 2013 Gender Gap Index, Cambodia is the lowest-ranked country in the East Asia and Pacific region — it is helping put street children back in school.
“In the past, girls didn’t get involved in sports because they thought they couldn’t do what the boys could. Now as they start to see more and more women skaters, they realize they can do better than the boys,” said Tin.
Every week, nearly 200 students come to the skateboarding facility in the capital, run by a nonprofit organization called Skateistan Cambodia.
“One advantage that skateboarding has in a place like Cambodia is that, as a new sport, it lets girls participate more easily,” said Alix Buck, development manager for Skateistan Cambodia.
The organization uses skateboarding as a tool for empowering youngsters. More than 50 percent of its skaters are children who work on the streets and nearly 40 percent of them are girls.
“Gender-based stereotypes are non-existent in skateboarding because the sport is new here. On the other hand, more commercialized sports like football are difficult because these have been defined as male-dominated,” Buck says.
What’s more, skateboarding is encouraging children to resume studies.
Skateistan Cambodia has several partner organizations like the Cambodian Women’s Development Agency, Damnok Toek, Friends International, Pour un Sourire D’Enfant (PSE), Tiny Toones and Transitions Global.
These provide education, counseling, shelter and health services to youth groups, including those from low-income families and those at risk of exploitation or trafficking.
While the children are first attracted to skateboarding, gradually these organizations help them access education and healthcare.
“I want to go back to school to study and become a lawyer so I can improve my family’s life,” said Tin.
More than half the country’s 15 million people are under the age of 25. With the average income being less than a dollar a day, many people migrate from rural to urban areas. According to the National Institute of Statistics, nearly a quarter of the population consists of internal seasonal migrants, of which nearly three quarters are under the age of 30.
PSE, a French nonprofit, is dedicated to providing food, healthcare, education and vocational training to children who work on the streets.
“At PSE, there are kids from many different social backgrounds. But skateboarding helps break down class barriers, with poorer kids learning not to fear the well-off ones,” Chansopheakna says.
Sometimes skateboarding is combined with art.
For instance, Skateistan offers an hour of skating classes and an hour of art classes. It uses art to level the playing field as art is accessible to all children, regardless of education. Their classes include photography, film production, sculpture and painting.
“When I first started teaching kids how to skateboard, I didn’t know it would become an amazing tool to help and motivate kids in Cambodia,” said Benjamin Pecqueur of Skateistan.
“We provide opportunities for kids to go to school through skateboarding. Our art-based classes give at-risk youth the opportunity to express their opinions on issues concerning them,” he said.
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